PRINT December 2007

Jennifer Allen

ACH, BERLIN . . . The past year was punctuated by the kind of melancholic moments for which the city, with its still-visible traces of war and its stubborn cloud cover, seems to have been custom-made. For many local art-worlders, the summer’s Grand Tour came to its official close with a wake for critic Harald Fricke, who died of cancer in June. Fricke’s exhibition reviews in these pages represent only a tiny fraction of his massive output and only one of his many interests, which ranged from pop music to literature, from film to cultural politics. Like many others, I will remember not only his political insights and elegantly labyrinthine prose but also his impeccable integrity (he never, for example, published a word about his partner, artist Bettina Allamoda) and his generosity (he was always ready to share information, opinions, and contacts, not to mention selections from his vast music library). Summoned by friends and colleagues from the Tageszeitung, where Fricke reigned as roving cultural editor for six years, I went to meet up with other “first generation” Berlin critics, like Dominic Eichler and Raimar Stange, who began writing in the latter half of the ’90s, just as the art scene here was starting to gather steam. Never have I been part of a gloomier group: mourning Fricke’s death, with no other topic of conversation on the horizon to relieve the tension. Everyone was fed up with the Venice Biennale, annoyed with Basel, pissed off by Documenta, and bored by Münster. (Stange’s concise review: “Forget it!”) There was a sense that, with Fricke’s death, a complex era had ended, culminating in a Grand Failure beyond the city.

All told, Fricke was at the Tagszeitung for seventeen years, first as a critic, then as editor at large. During his tenure there, Berlin became an international art capital and hosted a peculiar range of crossovers: architecture and art, music and art, pop and art. Indeed, the first time I met Fricke, in 1997, was on the staircase of a crumbling building, where the art had to compete with music and holes in the walls. Way back then, exhibitions seemed to be interchangeable with bars, lounges, clubs, and parties, and many shows were still taking place in abandoned buildings, soon to be renovated or torn down. The architecture of the exhibition sites themselves had the ephemerality and the feel of Happenings. Büro-Friedrich—a nonprofit platform that opened up during this period inside the former embassy of the former Czechoslovakia—moved from one side of the building to the other when the first section was torn down. For his debut at Contemporary Fine Arts in 1998, Jonathan Meese transformed the gallery into a teenager’s crawl space, moved into his own installation for the duration of the show, and drove the neighbors crazy by playing loud music after closing time.

Contemporary Fine Arts, like other galleries (Neu, Esther Schipper, Klosterfelde, Carlier/Gebauer, Arndt & Partner) that have been in the Berlin art scene from the beginning, has since expanded into a bigger, sleeker space. Meanwhile, galleries based elsewhere have been opening up Berlin branches at a steady clip. Of course, the profusion makes the success of the first generation (or even the second, e.g., Giti Nourbakhsch, or the third, e.g., Klara Wallner) harder to repeat, at least on the same scale, but increased competition doesn’t stop anyone from trying. The success of the new arrivals has been mixed. Despite the art world’s much-touted internationalism, a surprising proportion of contemporary art does not travel well. Every exhibition at the Berlin branch of LA-based Peres Projects, to take one example, seems like a bad hair day, even when the work is by a European artist. Ditto for the New York and London galleries plying their wares in the shadow of the Fernsehturm.

In Berlin, galleries, project spaces, and platforms—whether large or small, highly profitable or nonprofit, German or foreign, fitting in or falling flat—have traditionally compensated for the utter failure of the public institutions to give a home and visibility to the work of the many artists, from many countries, living here. The problem is particularly apparent at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwartskunst (Museum for Contemporary Art), where much of the exhibition space is given over to Erich Marx’s collection of trophy works from the ’60s and ’70s, from Beuys to Warhol. While edifying, this work seems a bit hoary for the “contemporary art” moniker. What we’ve needed, and haven’t had, is a kunsthalle—a forum expressly devoted to showing the work of innovative and primarily local artists. And finally, it looks like this need is going to be met. In October, it was announced that the city council had approved plans to build a kunsthalle, White Cube—no relation to the London entity—on the site of the Palast der Republik in East Berlin. An angular pavilion designed by Austrian architect Adolf Krischanitz, the kunsthalle is largely the brainchild of artist Coco Kühn and cultural manager Constanze Kleiner. The pair have been campaigning and advocating for the space’s establishment since 2005, when they organized a spontaneous survey of work by local artists including Olafur Eliasson, Tacita Dean, and Candice Breitz in the disintegrating Palast. Unfortunately, White Cube Berlin won’t be around for long. It is slated to open its doors this coming spring and will be dismantled in a couple of years to make way for an interdisciplinary cultural center, the Humboldt Forum.

In the last year or so, it has become clear that the vacuum left by public institutions will increasingly be filled by collectors. Many, indeed, seem to be dreaming of their own exhibition venues instead of being content with the prestige that comes with loaning their art to museums. A mixed-use ethos, in which residential and exhibition space intermingle (a model pioneered at the Sammlung Hoffmann, opened by collectors Erika Hoffmann and the late Rolf Hoffmann in 1997), has become a trend. You can make an appointment, for instance, to see software magnate Ivo Wessel’s trove of art, which occupies a wing of his house. Other architectural visions are more extreme: Several years ago, collector Christian Boros bought a World War II bunker in the city’s Mitte district with plans to build a modernist glass house atop it; the idea is that he and his family will live in the house, and his art will go on view beneath. The opening date keeps getting pushed back, but the word is that he will inaugurate his indestructible gallery next year, with specially commissioned works by Meese and John Bock. The most interesting thing about some of these spaces, finally, will be not the art they house but the way they erode the distinctions between public and private, institution and folly. The erosion became literal at the Kunst-Werke last October, when cracks appeared in the walls due to the construction of collector Thomas Olbricht’s new venue in the empty lot next door. While Olbricht is assuming the repair costs, it’s hard not to see the incident as a symbol of the private realm’s infringement on public institutions, which tend to be comparatively low on funds and which have to devote part of their budgets to public education and other outreach programs.

Lack of funds has certainly been one of the problems on Museum Island. It may be that there’s no “elephant in the room” when it comes to the subject of art in Berlin, but there is this UNESCO World Heritage Site in the middle of the Spree River. The very expensive effort to restore the island’s five museums, which house incredible collections of art and antiquities, has been going on for nine years and will continue for at least another ten. In fact, architect David Chipperfield, who’s in charge, speculated not long ago that it might take until 2050. But the island’s crown jewel, the Bode Museum, has reopened, and contemporary galleries are starting to cluster around, partaking of the neo-Baroque glow. On a bank of the Spree just opposite the island is Galeriehaus am Kupfergraben, a grand new building also designed by Chipperfield and owned by Heiner Bastian, a dealer and curator who worked most recently at the Hamburger Bahnhof. Contemporary Fine Arts has relocated to the new building’s first two floors, opening its doors in November with a solo show by Austrian artist Walter Pichler. On the top floor, Christiane zu Salm, media entrepreneur and quiz-show creator, will show works from her collection. Bastian reigns in between with his own space. His first show, a group exhibition in November, included and was named for Damien Hirst’s pill-display case The Void, 2000, which was on loan from the Hamburger Bahnhof. Choosing to showcase Hirst so prominently casts doubt on Bastian’s claim, voiced in the pages of Monopol magazine, that he left the Hamburger Bahnhof because it was not doing enough for contemporary art: Hirst just might have passed for contemporary ten years ago. For many observers, in any case, Bastian’s professional dealings are more interesting than his taste in art. Writer Daniel Böse, in the biweekly magazine Zitty, is the latest to scrutinize Bastian’s stint at the museum, implying that works Bastian acquired for the Bahnhof may have been funneled through the institution on their way to collectors, who would pay more for them if their provenance included the imprimatur of a public institution. “An abominable lie,” says Bastian.

Especially in light of such goings-on, more modest and original initiatives are a breath of fresh air. Mehringdamm 72, for example, a recently opened “project suite” run by Galerie Neu’s Alexander Schröder, who lives above it, takes the mixed-use concept in much more interesting directions than does Wessel or Boros. There is a reading room where anyone who wants can consult the library of the late, iconic New York gallerist Colin de Land. But the venue is also a commercial gallery and a showcase for Schröder’s own collection, selections from which might show up here and there in a curated show where all the other pieces are for sale. A case in point was the summer 2007 exhibition “Door Slamming Festival,” a mélange of works by Nairy Baghramian, Enrico David, Gareth Moore, Henrik Olesen, Kirsten Pieroth, Donald Urquhart, Josef Strau, and other artists, all incorporating found objects and suggesting a reinvention of the readymade. Upcoming is a show on Polish punk bands curated by Paulina Olowska. While this space is privately owned, its sensibility seems to have much in common with that of United Nations Plaza, the temporary school founded last year as an offshoot of the failed Manifesta V. The school’s program continued to be full and rich right up through its mid-November closing, with highlights including Boris Groys’s seminars on the post-Soviet condition, Anselm Franke’s lecture about the politics of ethnographic films, and Martha Rosler’s discussion of her large and fascinating library. Initiatives like these make one remember that cities are, happily, unpredictable places. But it seems easy to predict that Berlin’s low rents and affordable real estate—which have made all of these dreams possible—will also soon disappear, crumbling like the ruins of the Palast. For now, the living is still cheap, but the rate of change, its celerity, certainly makes the heart seem like a slow companion to history.

Jennifer Allen is a writer based in Berlin.